Nun for a Day


Pages of The Sun are filling with nostalgia for the great baseball games won and lost in Memorial Stadium. I am a second-hand fan; my husband loves the game and I love him. For me, as for many Baltimore Catholics, memory goes back to the field mass held in the old stadium before it was rehabbed. It was 1934 and we were commemorating the tricentennial of Maryland's founding.

On a designated day in May, commanded by the archbishop, regiments of Catholic school students in uniform were marched "hup-two-three-four" into the 33rd street arena by orders of nuns. Tens of thousands of us sat in assigned places on the splintered, unpainted benches, staring, if not focused, on an oversized altar constructed on the 50-yard line. Preparedness being innate to nunliness, all were in place an hour ahead of time.

At St. Edward's preparation for the field mass began in September. We didn't have a marching band like some of the "European" parishes from East Baltimore. Our ethnicity was mixed, though we didn't know the word at the time: Irish, German, Italian mostly. Our nuns, an enterprising lot imported from New England, annually devised a theme. That year, 12 girls costumed as nuns of their order made up an avant garde at the head of the column of serge-clad boys and girls. My sister, Jo, was chosen to be one of the nuns.

I was not, at first, among the anointed. How I wheedled my spot out of the "chorus" and into the nun squad has been suppressed, like all impure thoughts. In the end I was cast. Reverend Mother gave me a "holy card" depicting Saint Teresa of Avila fainting in ecstasy, eyes rolled back, a crown of roses binding a wimple about her head. She thought I had a religious vocation. Nothing of the kind; it was pure envy. The mere though of walking around in a nun's habit, rosary beads clicking authoritatively from my belt, was simply too intriguing to be missed. Nun for a day, a once-in-a lifetime chance.

On the appointed day the sky was a cloudless Virgin Mary blue. Six hundred uniformed pupils, 12 fake and two real nuns, boarded the No. 4 street cars at Poplar Grove Street and #F Lafayette Avenue, transferred to the No. 8 downtown and marched from York Road out 33rd Street to the stadium. Our spot was half way up on the east side.

The field mass was scheduled for noon. The sun at its zenith concentrated heat into that big wooden bowl filled with singing children. "O-on this day O beau-ti-ful mo-ther." Plumes of incense rose from the sacrificial platform below. Humidity muffled the tones of Latin vobiscums, already scrambled in echoes. White vestments embroidered with gold blurred in the glaring brightness. Perspiration rolled down my body still protected from a late Spring chill by my winter flannel underwear under the layers of black. "Mo-ther dear-est, mo-ther fair-est." My head ached under the starched white wimple binding my damp forehead. Fanning was not allowed. Drinks were banned. A ringing in my ears obscured the singing. The altar swirled about in a swirl of blackness that swallowed the sun. I wondered if my eyes were rolling back . . .

Sister Mary Thomas' voice called my name; the silver cross on her bosom dangled before me, glinting in the sun. I was flat out, riding on a stretcher carried by two Marines, down the tiers of seats toward the field.

A nurse came as I lay on the cot in the steamy hospital tent. "May I remove your veil, sister?" she asked respectfully. I nodded. A bundle of fat brown curls fell to my shoulders like live snakes. "How old are you? she gasped in disbelief. "Twelve," I said blandly. I didn't explain. I lay back whiffing aromatics of ammonia. (I thought of Garbo in "Camille.")

When Sister James Agnes came to get me she was angry. Packing the damp curls into the soggy wimple she tied it with vigor around my head, pulled me up by the shoulders and marched me out onto the grass. We were lost from the group and had to make our own way home.

Out on 33rd Street she set an athletic pace. How the rosary beads clicked! I tried to keep up, limping along as the official black cotton stockings inched down toward my ankles. The nickels Grandma had twisted into them in lieu of garters had given up their torque on the rolls above my knees.

"Stop, instantly!" Sister commanded, as I lifted the layers of black alpaca, "what will people think, a Catholic sister pulling up her stockings on the public street?" I hobbled mutely along a half-step behind her, slouching toward Bethlehem and the York Road carline.

Sister James Agnes said nothing on the long ride home, except "Move along," as we boarded the car at the transfer. My mother was waiting at the corner of Lafayette Avenue. Sister met her smiling, her teeth like pieces of white chalk, fat pink cheeks polished with heat in the four o'clock sun. She couldn't find me, she said. My mother expressed her gratitude; I was safe in the hands of a caring nun. "No trouble at all," Sister said as she rounded the corner at Krieger's drug store.

"I'm thirsty," I said weakly when she was out of sight. We went inside where, in the raiment of the blest, I sipped a cherry Coke, glancing to see the effect on a speechless and reverent Junior Stevens behind the soda fountain. He was 14 and went to School 65 across the street from Saint Edward's. Sister James Agnes didn't look back. My sister Jo was home cooling off in the tub. And for once my mother hadn't said, "We'll get a glass of water when we get home."

C7 Marie Lehnert Brinsfield writes from Ellicott City.

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